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31 January 2012

Lesson 3: Putting it all Together

Writing a story is like putting together a puzzle. You have all these pieces - protagonist, antagonist, subplots, setting, and so on - and you're trying to make it all fit into a coherent and compelling story.

Where do you start? How do you put it all together?

Just like a house requires load-bearing beams before you can add the walls and roof, what holds your story together are scenes and sequels. 

First of all, what is a scene and what the heck is a sequel? 

According to Jack M. Bickham's The Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene & Structure a scene "is the basic large building block of the structure of any long story." He defines sequel as "the glue that holds scenes together and helps  you get from one to the next."

Here's the gist of it:

  • A scene consists of a goal, conflict, and disaster. 
  • A sequel consists of emotion, thought, decision and action.   

Here's an example from Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn (Hopefully I am applying this correctly!):

GOAL: The first scene of the book introduces a unicorn who lives alone in the woods. It is her nature to live alone, she is immortal and seems blissfully unaware of the passing of time. This bit of setup is essentially the statement of the story goal - unicorns are solitary and immortal creatures and they like it that way.

CONFLICT: One day she sees two hunters riding through her forest and she eavesdrops on their conversation. She overhears them saying that unicorns are long gone, if ever they existed. The introduction of the huntsmen into her peaceful forest literally upsets her world. 

DISASTER:  The scene ends when she realizes she might be the only unicorn in existence, that she might not be eternal after all.
The unicorn stood still at the edge of the forest and said aloud, "I am the only unicorn there is." They were the first words she had spoken, even to herself, in more than a hundred years.

What immediately follows is the SEQUEL.

EMOTION and THOUGHT: The sound of her own voice frightens her. Wandering through her forest, she thinks whether it could be true -that she is the only unicorn in the world. She debates leaving her forest and going in search of the others. The idea scares her.

DECISION: Even though unicorns are bad at making decisions, one night she decides she must look for the others.

ACTION: She leaves her forest.
Under the moon, the road that ran from the edge of her forest gleamed like water, but when she stepped out onto it, away from the trees, she felt how hard it was, and how long. She almost turned back then; but instead she took a deep breath of the woods air that still drifted to her, and held it in her mouth like a flower, as long as she could.
What follows is the start of a new scene - the unicorn's first adventure outside the safety of her forest.

There are of course variations to the scene-sequel structure. Bickham explains these concepts in greater detail. I highly recommend reading  Scene & Structure  since I truly didn't do it justice.  But here's the take away message: Stories can't be all non-stop action (the scenes). There are times when characters need to reflect on what has happened before mustering enough courage to keep on going (the sequel). 

So what is it supposed to look like when you put it all together?

VoilĂ !

26 January 2012

Lesson 2: Don't Judge a Book by its Cover

One of my favorite quotes from DYNAMIC CHARACTERS by Nancy Kress is
"Fiction (like life) happens to people." 
In other words, if you have characters that are realistic, who have needs and desires, fears and hopes, they will create conflict that in turn will drive the plot. In fact, by picking different characters you can essentially have the same story but end up with different plots.

Sounds like a contradiction, but bear with me.

Let's take a look at Romance novels.

I said bear with me! There's a point to this, honest!

Where was I? Ah, yes! Romance novels.

As I was saying, this much maligned genre is often accused of being the same old story told over and over again. Boy meets girl, they fall in love happily-every-after, the end. But if it's the same story retold ad nauseum why does anyone bother reading them? Why do Romance novels account for more sales than Science Fiction and Fantasy combined?  The answer is: the characters. 

Romance novels are inhabited by different people. The women may be all looking for their happily ever after but like people they come with their own unique repertoire of  prejudices, fears, and flaws. As such, they do not solve problems the same way. While heaving bosom #1 might run away from her prince charming, damsel in distress #2 might fall desperately in love on page one. Every step along the way towards the happily-ever-after-ending of a typical romance novel will be different. 

Different people will react differently. They will have their own set of conflicts. In other words, this is how romance novelists come up with new plots and get away with telling the "same old story...a fight for love and glory..."

So if you ever feel like your story idea isn't original, don't fret. Don't succumb to "Oh no...not another earthlings versus aliens story!" (Childhood's End by Asimov, Ender's Game by Card, Uplift Trilogy by Brin).  Or, "really, yet another kid in wizard/witch school?" (The Worst Witch series by Murphy, Harry Potter by Rowling). 

Remember the quote above: "Fiction (like life) happens to people."

Inhabit your story with characters that are believable and the rest will follow.

25 January 2012

Lesson 1: First Impressions

Imagine you're at the local coffee shop, hunched over a double-double, your eyes still drooping with sleep. Your friend suddenly elbows you in the ribs to get your attention. Before a curse forms on your lips you see him.

Would you like to try my barbarian-sized timbit?
He has lean-cut bronze limbs and his hair is a streaming black mane. His blue eyes smolder with an unquenchable fire. A knot of fear and awe forms in your stomach as you watch him approach with a tigerish suppleness. By Crom! You are in the presence of Conan, the Cimmerian.

The above description is lifted directly from Robert E. Howard's Conan story "Iron Shadows in the Moon." So, how does one, like Howard, create such a memorable character? 

According to DYNAMIC CHARACTERS by Nancy Kress first impressions matter. When we first come across a stranger we first tend to first notice what they look like, what they are wearing, how they carry themselves. 

When a character is first introduced they must have something that makes us notice them right away.  For instance, in "The Vale of Lost Women" when we first set eyes on Conan he is described as follows: 

"So she watched the white man with painful intensity, noting every detail of his appearance. He was tall; neither in height nor in massiveness was he exceeded by many of the giant blacks. He moved with the lithe suppleness of a great panther. When the firelight caught his eyes, they burned like blue fire. High-strapped sandals guarded his feet, and from his broad girdle hung a sword in a leather scabbard."

The details Howard chose to describe Conan create immediate visual images. They also give us an idea of Conan's personality. It is no coincidence Howard's creation is reminiscent of a panther stalking emerald jungles. Conan leaps, strikes, and carves his way through life. 

I highly recommend thinking about characters you loved and taking a closer look at how their creator described them. What specific details did the author use? What images did they conjure? How does the character move or speak?

Please feel free to share descriptions of your favorite characters in the comments section below!

Remember - the devil is in the details!

24 January 2012

One too many books about writing...

Like most aspiring writers, over the years I have purchased, read, borrowed, highlighted and collected a variety of books about writing. While not one of those books has turned out to be the  Rosetta Stone on how to write (there is no such thing) each has proven to be a handy reference  demystifying the art of writing.  If I were to distill everything I've learned from these books into a single sentence it would be the following:  

Writing is a skill and it can be taught. 

Perhaps we are all  born storytellers, but we learn how to become writers. In elementary school we start tracing the alphabet. We then move on to reading about Dick and Jane and learn sentence structure. Eventually we are reading chapter novels, writing book reports, and essays that require a thesis statement. We gradually learned how to do all this and so it becomes second nature to us, so much so that when it comes to creative writing we often foolishly think we need only put pen to paper and we will have a story.  It is when the page remains defiantly blank that we realize we neglected to learn about story structure and effective plotting while we were literally learning to cross our t's and dot our i's.  

In order to learn something one must practice. 

Since I am a visual learner,  I plan to take each book about writing that I own and apply the lessons they teach to published works. If I can identify scene structure, effective description, good characterization, show vs. tell, and all the other "rules" about writing to a published work  I believe I will be able to apply it to my own writing and thus become a better storyteller.

In the upcoming weeks, I will be taking a look (not necessarily in the following order) at the Writer's Digest Elements of Fiction Writing books: 

  • DESCRIPTION by Monica Wood
  • SCENE & STRUCTURE by Jack Bickham

I hope you will join me in this learning experience!

14 January 2012

Pardon the Mess...

I decided to change my Blogger template so things are looking a little messy right now until I figure out how to tweak the HTML and customize it to my liking.

26 October 2011


Nanowrimo (National Writing Novel Month) is fast approaching and for some reason whenever I think of it my brain flashes to the Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Men! scene from Family Guy.

Perhaps it's because the prospect of writing 50,000 somewhat coherent words in novel form in a month will turn me into a wacky waving arm flailing nut.

So, what have decided to write? You would think it would be The Beggar's Wife but lately whenever I think of that story it no longer excites me. I outlined it to be a MG/YA story but at the moment my heart simply isn't into the fairy tale world. Since I am not as excited as I should be, I've decided to shelve it and write something else during Nanowrimo. I might revert to my Paranormal Fantasy idea tentatively titled "Spell On You" (inspired by the Screamin' Jay Hawkings song famously covered by Marilyn Manson).

I guess time will tell and according to the clock on the Nanowrimo site it's 5 days and 6 hours.

30 September 2011

"It's the journey, not the destination" - part 2

In the previous post I mused about potential motivations for King Thrushbeard. I see him as a crafty, roguish character who can't back down from a challenge. I also envision him as someone who isn't used to rejection, or at least can't accept being rejected by a woman. The princess definitely offends Thrushbeard's vanity. Otherwise, why bother with the cloak-and-dagger marriage?

This brings me to part 2 of this discussion: why is the princess arrogant, willful and rude?

Since her father is forcing her to marry, a simple explanation is that she simply doesn't like being told what to do. Honestly, who does? Even though she has to go along with it, I think the princess should be crafty enough to realize that the only way she won't have to marry is if no one will want her. At least it's one way of securing her independence, even if it is a little misguided and childish. So she decides to scare away her suitors by being haughty and completely unappealing. But this is only part of the puzzle. I think I might give her a bit of trust issues, token fairy tale curse drama in order to make her character more interesting.

We shall see.